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JANUARY 19, 1999: 

The Hunt for Red October

D: John McTiernan (1990)
with Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Tim Curry


Crimson Tide

D: Tony Scott (1995)
w/ Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Viggo Mortensen, George Dzundza


Das Boot (The Boat)

D: Wolfgang Petersen (1981)
w/ Jurgen Prochnow, Herbert Gronemeyer, Klaus Wennemann


Francois Truffaut claimed that a true anti-war film is impossible because you cannot avoid making war look exciting. Even with the recent batch of "realistic" World War II films, we've seen little success in making the bullets and explosions more frightening than fun. Military pictures have always been the most action-packed and entertaining because, unlike modern action movies, war movies are plausible. Submarine films have all the attractions of a war picture, and because the war is fought in massive machines and hostile environments, they also have a science fiction sort of appeal. Except, of course, that submarines are real.


Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, and Scott Glenn star in the film adaptation of Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October takes place during the Cold War in a fragile political atmosphere where one false step could obliterate everyone. Capt. Marko Ramius (Connery), one of the Soviet Union's top submarine commanders, takes just such a step when he runs off with the Soviets' new silent-running submarine intending to run nuclear missile tests right off the American coast. While the Soviets and Americans work together to find and sink the Red October, Jack Ryan (Baldwin) tries to convince everyone that Ramius actually intends to defect with the Soviets' greatest military weapon. Sure, the plot's a bit shaky (just why is Ramius doing this?), and most of the acting comes perilously close to typecasting, but it's still extremely fun to watch: There's edge-of-your-seat suspense, satisfying surprises, and best of all, an impressive cast of tough-looking guys in uniform yelling at each other in pseudo-military techno talk. It's everything we look for in a good submarine flick. Crimson Tide, which some people accused of riding in October's wake, is actually a far better movie. Tony Scott, whose reputation is largely for loud, shallow movies, shows surprising restraint and depth in this film. All the good sub stuff is there -- underwater combat, high-tech shenanigans, and blistering suspense -- but Crimson Tide is more about a conflict of character and ideology. Capt. Frank Ramsey (Hackman) and his crew, including the new first officer Lt. Commander Hunter (Washington), are sent to patrol the waters around an unstable, post-Cold War Russia. The situation on land intensifies, and the USS Alabama, before losing communications, receives an incomplete message that seems to order them to launch their nuclear payload. Ramsey is old-school military -- men drive boats and do what they're told -- while Hunter comes from the new, more thoughtful military education. What follows is an intense division questioning the duty and loyalties of the entire crew. Hackman and Washington have an explosive chemistry, but what really captures the drama of the film is the supporting cast, particularly the anguished faces of Viggo Mortensen, George Dzundza, and Matt Craven, as they are forced to take sides. The script is penetrating and smart, including an uncredited polish job by Quentin Tarantino, and the action is just as intense in a Ramsey/Hunter shouting match as it is when everyone grabs their guns. Balanced and suspenseful, Crimson Tide combines the best of military action movies: the drama of a life and death decision and what it takes to survive it.

It would be a terrible mistake for anyone to write or talk about submarine movies, though, without giving the proper respect due to what is without a doubt the finest film ever made on submarine warfare: Das Boot. There are those classics that everyone should see, and often those films require more patience than anyone but a dedicated film buff can muster. For your average American viewer, a long, ultra-realistic film with subtitles and no big-name actors (unless you count the creepy guy from The Seventh Sign as a big-name actor) sounds about as much fun as a lobotomy. But trust me, this is one of the best and most entertaining films ever made. In the last years of WWII, a German U-boat is sent out on a dangerous patrol in the North Atlantic then ordered on the suicidal mission of passing through the Straits of Gibraltar. As far as plot goes, that's it -- no twists, no Hollywood formula. What this film accomplishes, though, is a vivid portrait of the fear, filth, and tedium of submarine life. Unlike submarine movies with special effects shots of the subs maneuvering around each other, in Das Boot you cannot see outside the boat, and the question of whether the crew is going to live or die is determined by gauges, meters, and the terrifying ping of sonar. The film's characters, particularly the captain (Prochnow), are a set of Germans that we find ourselves praying will survive, if that tells you anything about how involving this picture can be. Das Boot also accomplishes what Truffaut thought impossible: While this war picture is exciting and suspenseful, it certainly doesn't make you want to join the Navy. -- Jason Zech


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